Saturday, October 30, 2010


I've said it before probably, but it bears repeating: Mammalogy class is awesome. I am, fully and completely, enchanted by the whole experience.

We had a zoo field trip today, and it was so deeply pleasing to be just one Hermione Granger in a crowd of Hermione Grangers, each person endeavoring to use vocabulary that we've all learned together in this course, not to show off but out of a sheer delight at knowing the words and concepts, all of us subject to a kind of Geeky Tourette's, high-fiving each other for using vibrissae or folivore or precocial in context.

Our official field trip ended at 2:07pm right in front of the sign for the Aye-aye exhibit in the primate center  They lead small groups into this exhibit at 15-minute increments.  Even though we were done for the day, 9 or so of us decided to wait the eight minutes for the next tour, and check out these weird nocturnal lemurs, one of which is named Dobby, naturally, because of its resemblance to the house-elf in Harry Potter.

It's pitch dark in the Aye-aye exhibit, so first you sit on a bench to let your eyes adjust, while Ariel, the docent, provides some facts about the animals. As your eyes adjust, suddenly you see movement.  Then you can get up and approach the glass and take in the gigantic ears and long digits of these funny little creatures.  As Ariel was talking about their many adaptations, and in particular their night vision, I, afflicted with above-mentioned Tourette's, couldn't help but whisper tapetem lucidum (shiny reflective layer in the eye of nocturnal mammals, which we lack).  Instantly, 5 or 6 voices echoed tapetem lucidum in a whisper, like an incantation.

In that moment, I did feel deeply under a spell, just so absolutely delighted to be in that particular place in that particular company, one in a diverse but matching set of passionate enthusiasts in love with the natural world.  So sweet!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crazy for Crows!

Thanks to a Sunday afternoon FB post by Wildcare, I watched "A Murder of Crows" on PBS that night.  I've long loved these glossy black birds -- and particularly treasure a painting of a crow Joe gave for Christmas one year, by local artist Peta Sanderson (that's the painting above!).

I've never understood why people have such a problem with these beauties, and now, thanks to wildlife biologists, here's evidence of their stunning intelligence. Tool using! Face recognition! Multiple languages! Passing what they've learned on to their young! Yes, folks, crows, it turns out, are a LOT like us.

When I mentioned the program to one of my Mammalogy classmates, she paid me back with the following true story she'd just heard from a woman she was hiking with on the weekend. Apparently, this woman, who lives out in the country somewhere in the western part of the county, was outside her home. A crow landed right in front of her and started cawing at her like mad, then flew off. The woman stood there a bit puzzled. Strange behavior, right? The crow returned, carrying on and vocalizing at her like there was no tomorrow, then flew off again. And a third time. Each time, the crow would fly off to the same location. Finally, following the fourth time, the woman thought, ok, let's see. She walked over, under the tree where the crow had perched. Right there, stuck in her fence, she found a fawn. Which, naturally, using her hands, the woman freed.

That's the kind of thing that gives me goosebumps. That's the kind of story that makes my day, that lives on in my mind, carrying me through all sorts of other situations, filling me with wonder and excitement and pure thrill at being alive and sharing this space with such wondrous creatures.

About whom we still have so much to learn. As a dedicated student, I am so happy about how much we don't know, how much we have yet to learn, through humility and observation and the maintenance of an open mind.

Watch this!

Watch the full episode. See more Nature.

Monday, October 18, 2010

so happy to be with my people

Oh, Mammalogy class was awesome tonight. A classmate brought in two plastic bags, one containing a dead bat (yay) and the other what we thought was some large animal poop. We kicked off class with ten minutes of David Attenborough's Life of Mammals, a segment on the Slender Loris -- our teacher all the while doing little voices, priming us for some exceptional Attenborough-ism. And then he launched into lecture on this week's topic: reproduction. Yeehaw!

At the break it just got better. One of my classmates works for Wildcare and had driven their naturalist-van to school -- so at break we got to go out and handle taxidermied specimens, passing animals to each other over the VW bug parked next to the van. In 15 minutes I got to see and/or handle and pet a Great Horned Owl, a Burrowing Owl, a Weasel, a Mink, a Sea Otter, a Beaver, a Skunk, an Egret, a Gray Fox, a Fawn, a Mountain Lion kitten, a Golden Eagle and -- by far my favorite -- a Badger. We were all jumping around, making nerdy mammalogy jokes, appreciating every little detail of these remarkable creatures, such animal geeks geeking out with impunity in a dark parking lot.

We rushed back to class, not wanting to be late, only to find that our teacher had taken apart that thing that we'd thought was a poop, but which was actually an enormous barn owl pellet. In it he found FOUR mouse skulls. Amazing.

And in this peculiar animal-nerd heaven, we then went on to do the baculum lab connected with the unit on reproduction. Oh so amazing. Because really, what is not totally fascinating about mammalian penis bones?

Even though taking this class has contributed to my general sense of being crazy-busy, it also makes me absurdly happy. There is something incomparable about getting to know my classmates, each one of them an expert on something, whether it's birds or frogs or Marin animals, or just another passionate enthusiast like me. It's just so much fun to sit in a room and know that every single person in there is just like me, crazy about animals, ceaseless fascinated and eager to learn everything.

So I'm thinking about taking herpetology next semester. It makes me a little nervous, but the teacher assures me that there will be snakes in the room every single class, plenty of opportunities to get to know them and love them just as much as mammals. Just as much? Well, OK, maybe that could never happen. But at this point, given how stoked I feel after every class, I'm willing to give it a shot.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

the name of the tree

Someone walking by our house this morning left us a note with her name and number and the words "the name of the tree."

Aaah yes, the gorgeous tree in our front yard, a Pawlonia or Royal Empress from the aptly-named  When we bought it from the website, it was a mere twig, basically, about 6 inches long.  In the intervening years (5, 7, we can't remember), it has grown and grown and now stands 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide, with a 16" trunk.  It's absolutely stunning.

In the spring, it produces big fragrant purple flowers, like giant foxgloves.

Truly an incredible organism. No wonder people stop and ask us about it, leave us their names and numbers and interest in the name of the tree.

But all day, since I read the note, I have been vaulting from "the name of the tree" back to a Danny Kaye record that my sisters and I listened to a lot when we were kids.  I've only ever met one other person who remembers his telling of The Tale of the Name of the Tree, aka Uwungalema.

I distinctly remember this record and this story in particular being a bit banned in the household, as it would regularly send us into paroxysms of helpless giggling, helpless giggling being frowned upon for whatever reason. I've never really understood why it was so annoying, three darling girls laughing and laughing, although I imagine that once we got started, between the three of us, we could very easily keep egging each other on for hours unless they stuck a pin in it.

Thanks to the wonderful interwebs, I just listened to the story again and it made me laugh til I cried, at exactly the same parts that delighted us so much as kids.  (Martine and for Katherine P-C: you can get it at We just couldn't get enough of the animals misremembering the name of the tree, their bungled nonsensical hilarious attempts at the word, meaningless syllables strung together. For us, this was the very definition of funny. 

Joe says I only think it's funny now because it made me laugh when I was little.  No way, he's so wrong.  It's still funny.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Golden Ticket!

What a beautiful day!  Picked up my amazing teacher Laura early this morning under a gorgeous sky, sun coming up through fluffy clouds, everything pink and gold and stunning, and headed down to Stanford to see and hear the incomparable Dalai Lama.  I am in a bit of daze right now, still reeling from the fullness of the experience, not just the talk but also lunch afterward and solo chat-time on the long drive.  Pinching myself and deeply feeling my good fortune, and so so grateful to Laura for inviting me.  I so had the Golden Ticket today!

First of all, the Dalai Lama is an utterly delightful creature.   The moment he entered the room was electric.  Every person stood, hands joined in front of our hearts, to greet the good-natured imp of compassion.  Something about him, not just age, maybe the shape of his head, made me think of my father.   Yes, His Holiness is a human being like the rest of us and yet, oh dear, how very special indeed he is.  Like all of my heroes, he speaks and exudes such a genuine pleasure at being alive, such Snoopy Dance-joy.  And really, there is something so delicious about his laugh. Seated where we were, we could really observe his person, his walk, his arms, his robes, his socks, and from the monitors we could really get the expressions on his face.  Absolutely precious in all of the best senses of the word: precious like a jewel, to be cherished; precious like an animal or a child you can't get enough of, full of marvels, to be adored; precious above all like a shining model of humanity, to be admired, emulated.  Delightful.

I'm working my way through my notes, but can't seem to get the words together just yet.  That'll come soon, I imagine.  Meanwhile, I'm being compassionate with myself about my inability to articulate it all.  

Right now I am just resting in this delight, considering all that HH the DL had to say about our innate capacity for compassion, and reveling in the sequence of events that brought me here.  

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Akilandeshwari: Croc Mama

At some point yesterday, as we were entering the third hour of a Tantric philosophy workshop, I had a distinct moment of floating above my body and wondering How did I get here? How did I find myself, in a studio with probably 40 other people, spending a gorgeous October afternoon learning about the 36 Tattvas of Tantric Cosmology? By what series of remarkable twists and turns did I find myself precisely here?

For those for whom these terms are new, the Tattvas, to paraphrase (possibly poorly) our genius and genial teacher, Douglas Brooks, are the explanation (by us, to us) of the process by which the Divine – that is, Consciousness itself – chooses to experience itself as us. Chooses. To experience itself. As us.

This is pretty standard curriculum for those of us who practice Anusara Yoga, but taking a weekend-long dive into the Tattvas takes it to a whole other level. The head, she does spin.

There’s no way I can possibly reproduce here even a fraction of what I learned. I have 18 pages of notes (Moleskin notebook pages, not 8 ½ x 11, but still...) and scribbles all over the two handouts we were given. It will take me YEARS to be able to speak what I learned today in my own words, but it landed deep and I’m completely excited and stoked and eager to stay in this rich space, learn more, see more, geek out way, way more.

Honestly, it’s like being handed the keys.

There is one story I do want to repeat since it blew my mind. But first, I can’t stop thinking about the episode of 30 Rock in which the character of Carol, the pilot and Liz Lemon’s potential love interest, played by Matt Damon, is introduced. Liz sees, but doesn’t really see, his uniform and asks him, hardly looking up, if he’s a doorman. To which Carol snaps back, “Yeah, I'm a doorman. To the SKY.” The line is delivered with the perfect (and memorable) combination of earnest and snark. Dude: Douglas is seriously a doorman to the sky, someone who knows the really important shit and knows how to teach it. Super intense and super fun.

OK, so the story that blew my mind is this. We spent a lot of time this weekend learning the differences between the Northern (Kashmir Shaiva) and Southern (Shakta) interpretations of the Tattvas. They agree 100% on the Tattvas themselves and have identical practices and rituals, but their spin on the Tattvas differs pretty dramatically.

From what we learned this weekend, it seems – don’t kill me if I get this wrong, I’m just a baby, man, learning my way – that the Northern tradition is vertical, the point being to ascend back to the Oneness from which we originate, and of which we are fundamentally composed, but about which we can easily be ignorant in our material state. The practices are designed to lead us back to a reunion with that Oneness. And to ascend, you need shaktipat, transmitted by a guru, by word or touch or thought, aka the moment of grace that snaps you out of your sense of separation. You yourself can’t break out of your isolation. You need to be broken into, via a guru and shaktipat.

To illustrate the difference in the South, Douglas told the story of Akilandeshwari, a version of Parvati who takes the form of a crocodile. And you know me so you know I'm a sucker for animal stories.

Akilandeshwari buries her eggs on the bank of a river, as crocodiles do. When it’s time for those baby crocodiles to hatch, they use – and this is really how it works – their “egg tooth,” which is really a bony growth on the tip of their snouts, to puncture the egg. But that’s not all. Baby crocodiles cry out, to each other, to let the residents of the other eggs know it’s time. And then, then they hatch together. Which from a biological standpoint, increases their chances of survival. In the story, Akilandeshwari digs them out a bit but lets them do the rest, and then carries them in her great mouth to the river.

We ourselves are those baby crocodiles. When it’s time for us to hatch – that is, awaken – we break the egg ourselves and then we listen for the others and emerge together. In the Southern tradition, it’s not the guru but the kula itself that provides the shaktipat of the guru. We do this together.

And those crocodiles: where do they go? They don’t retreat from the world, they don’t want to cross over the water to a place of quiet and repose. No, they want in to the river, deeper into the world, into the realm of experience.

That story is making me jump around. A lot. It’s such a tremendous pleasure to be baby crocodile paddling around with all you others, through our relationships with each other celebrating the joy of embodiment. Once again, yoga rocks my whole world.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Civilization on Six Legs"

We attended a great lecture, "Civilization on Six Legs," at the Academy of Sciences last night, part of Litquake, San Francisco's Literary Festival.  I took notes, natch, which are a bit mysterious to me this morning, taken as they were in a planetarium plunged into total darkness for the presentation, lights on only at the end during the Q&A.  And this morning as I review those notes and what the two experts, Bee man Thomas Seeley and Ant-omologist Mark Moffett, had to say about collective wisdom and decision-making amongst these insects, I'm still inspired and zing-ed up by their passion for their subject matter.

Oh, sweet animal nerds, is there any category of people on this planet who are more delightful than you?  I mean, really, think about David Attenborough and his infectious animation when discussing snails or hedgehogs or snow leopards.  Or the scientists in the Black-footed ferret vs. Prairie Dog video that circulated last week (link below), choked up at witnessing something never seen before, two grown men on camera completely in love with what they'd just seen.  Or my Mammalogy teacher on Monday night, passionately arguing that the animal on the California state flag should not be the bear but no, the animal who is really responsible for the agricultural riches of this state, the one animal who deserves the recognition for California being the paradise it is -- the pocket gopher, lowly and despised, and yet at the very foundation of the healthy soil at the center of the state.

Seriously, I can't think of any group of people who demonstrate more joie de vivre than people who study animals for a living.

Honeybee DemocracyOf course the bees and ants guys were the same way.  Imagine spending 35 years of your life, as Thomas Seeley has, learning how bees operate, how a swarm arrives at a quorum, collectively choosing a new home based on a participative democratic process.  Fascinating stuff that demands so much devotion, years and years of deep, deep studentship.  And yet no loss of humor.  Oh, the delightful demonstration of a bee's waggle dance he performed using the projector remote!  So funny to refer to bees, in their role in flower reproduction, as flying penises, a hive in your garden as a dawn-to-dusk escort service.   

Adventures among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of TrillionsIf the bee man was soft-spoken and laid-back, the ant guy was surely not.  He was ant, as bee man was bee.  Mark Moffett's new book, "Adventures Among Ants," illustrates how ants choose some of the very same behaviors as we humans, whether it's civilizations characterized by hunter-gathering, agriculture, militarism or slave-owning.  I was struck early on by his observation that the smaller a population is, the slower it can be.  Everything speeds up in species that are more populous. Species of ants that live in small groups, mud ants, for example, in their groups of 10-15, are slow, prey on snails.  Species of ants that live in groups of millions make quick motions, organize themselves fast.  Apparently, he said, there is a biological value to Type A behavior in large groups.  Nice!  Check out his blog if you want to know more about how ants, like us, have terrorists.

Truly this world we live in is remarkable.  Even the tiniest among us are organized, have purpose, have unknown ways we are able to puzzle out only after years of dedicated watching.  How great is that?

Monday, October 4, 2010

TT Weekend #1: Jump in the Fire

I'm particularly tired this morning, as I begin to navigate my way out of the perfect storm my life has been the last couple of weeks.  Yoga has been intense, work has been intense, school has been intense, and then there's me, in the middle of it all, juggling the plates that I put into motion, not sleeping for thinking about keeping it all in the air, awake for as long as is required to keep it all going.

But now the paper I have due in Mammalogy tonight is done, the reading is done, Teacher Training weekend #1 is done.  I can let my shoulders down a little and reflect.

Just for a smidge, though, since I still have an intense work-day ahead.  And work has been so crazy lately, a phenomenon I am observing with a weird sense of calm most of the time, panic at some others.  Once I'm in the car tonight after Mammalogy lecture, I think I'll be able to fully let it all go and potentially sleep for more than 5 hours at a go.

OK, so Teacher Training.


Sianna is masterful, just an amazing teacher, just so inspiring with her stack of bound Clairefontaine notebooks, delivery and utter knowing of her subject.  I feel so fortunate to be in her presence, to be learning to be a teacher from her.

I think we were teaching a pose to each other within the first 15 minutes of starting the first class.  I so appreciated being thrown into it, the deep and repeated trust that we can all do this, that we're ready, that it's our time.

It is a huge stretch.  It's humbling, to say the least, to find myself in the seat of the teacher and discover that my words, oh great life-long familiars, have utterly deserted me.  It's humbling to come to know that listening, even listening deeply for years and years, that note-taking and reading and studying, while good, don't make it any easier for the right words to come tumbling from my mouth just like that.  The motions are so familiar and yet standing in front of eager students listening for instruction, how humbling and challenging and awe-inspiring to find the way to call out the Twister, color it with poetry, watch the bodies take the form.

The one-on-one work is the hardest.  Somehow it's easier to be in a group of 6 or 10, teaching to more people.  The feedback is lovely and helpful.

And it's magic really, to know that you're in a position of really being able to help people, help them to feel good, just by connecting them to what they already are, to stand there on strong feet and see the effect of the words on different bodies, the way a phrase can inspire a person to grow larger into their own shape.

But I left last night thinking, Oh dear, really?  Seriously?  Yes, I think I can, but others are already so good at it, so much better than me, how will I ever catch up, will I ever catch up?

Training to be a teacher really is jumping in the fire.  I am facing already all of my own demons -- self-doubt, self-doubt, and oh yeah, self-doubt -- and while I know that I'll come out on the other side better than just fine, REfineD in fact, at the end of this perfect two-week storm, the flame is pretty hot.

What I realized on the second day is that teaching yoga really is truly seeing the people in front of you.  Uh, maybe that's just what yoga really is all the time, actually -- learning to see with the right eyes, the eyes that see the good that's always there, the bold, shiny beauty in each person that yearns to be expressed.  And that is truly awe-some, truly an honor and a terrifying responsibility: to be the one who coaxes that out, with kindness, with words, with asana.  But if I'm being honest, I have a long life experience on not really looking at people, so now I'm retraining my vision, getting a new prescription as Laura would say.

So glad to be in this fire right now.  So grateful to all of my teachers.  So looking forward to the next weekend with my new kula, the Sri Ganesha kula (aka, in my head, the Yo Ganesha kula), which won't be -- unfortunately -- until December.  That's good, though.  It gives me plenty of time to hydrate and get ready for the next time, check out the new tools I've gained, stay in this hot place and sweat it out.

PS For those for whom it might make a difference (perhaps only me), yes, I am singing Metallica "Jump in the Fire" pretty much non-stop, mantra du matin.  So come on!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Deliciousness I'm crazy about...

Thanks to the good people at Yoga of Sausalito, I have a new favorite thing: Wild & Free Body Balm from Bodhichitta Botanicals, a delicious combination of patchouli and sweet orange that I just can't leave the house without. I'd been putting this balm on as I was signing in at the studio for class, then re-applying again before heading out after class, so finally bought some for home-use recently. And then bought the Lotion, too. Love!

And also love their website, which includes this image and Petit Prince quote. If they had a Facebook page, I'd Fan them, Like them, for sure. Just so happy with everything about the product, from smell to the packaging.

Much as I love to support my local retail outlet, I also wanted to share that if you shop direct this month, Bodhichitta is offering a 20% discount through 10/31/10.


Friday, October 1, 2010

It's October and TT starts today!

I am breaking my own rules already today, up and drinking coffee before 4am.  Normally, when I'm insomniac, I can get up or stay in bed and think or read, but generally impose the rule that I can't start drinking coffee -- the signal that the day has officially begun -- until 4.  Not so today.  I've been awake since 2 and damn it, it's October and I'll drink early if I want to.

So here I am in my robe at my desk, dog at my side begging toast, starting this most auspicious day early-early and with a bang.

Today is the day I finally start Teacher Training at YogaKula with Sianna and Noah.  I say "finally" because this is my second attempt at the TT.  I signed up and was set to begin in October 2008 following our return from Italy (man, that seems like way longer ago than 2 years), but realized in the week prior that I wasn't feeling ready.  In 08, it seemed like the next logical step in my devoted studentship but I was non-committal about actually teaching yoga.  Two years and several dozen revelations later, I am no longer non-committal, still nervous as hell about what it's going to be like to take that seat in front of a class but fully committed.

One of the aforementioned revelations took place, naturally, on my mat in Bali.  

We did a lot of work around sankalpa on that trip -- sankalpa being intention.  And in case you have a reaction to my use of the word "work" in the last sentence [because I did when I read it back to myself], indulge this digression, pretty please.  What happens on retreat -- what might seem like nothing more than self-indulgent Eat Pray Love navel-gazing in tropical paradise -- can be, and has generally always been for me, profound, always a space in which I am able to do what I consider the most important "work": understanding who I am and why.  Scoffers: scoff on!  But this is what's true for me.

Anyways, in that days-long exploration of sankalpa, I realized -- it popped into my head, exited my pencil, before I could even analyze it -- that teaching is something I naturally do, that I need to move into a setting in which Teacher is my acknowledged and desired role.  Yoga is a big part of this for me.  Yoga is often the place where I am happiest, where I feel like I am my very best self, a shared experience from which I emerge shined-up, plugged in to the truth, ready to make the world more beautiful.  I want more time in that particular place, and I want to share that transformative power with others.  

But the teaching itself -- whether teaching yoga, composting, gardening or beekeeping, or just sharing my jump-up-and-down delight in the natural world, it's all one -- the teaching emerges from my deep sankalpa to help others on the path to their own happiness.  It's what I've been referring to in my head, the working title of the book I'm hatching, as Stretching the Yay, finding ways to make a life that manifests the joy of being exactly who we truly are.  And in many ways, to credit my parents' example as life-long teachers, teaching is in my DNA.  On the face of things, my mother taught Spanish at Lowell High School.  But if you ask her, and if you sat in her class as I did as a student, along with countless others who passed through that room in her 30+ years of teaching, then you know this: she wasn't teaching Spanish, she was teaching Life.

This Teacher thing is part of the problem of where I'm working now, how I'm earning my living.  I think it's in the Vedas that the four modes -- Teacher, Student, Friend, Enemy -- are elaborated (feel free to correct me if I've got the source wrong.  This is from my notes from various non-Laura classes, so for me it's hearsay and I do want, have looked for, not found, primary source).  Each of us is one of these roles in our interactions with others; we're either Teacher or Student or Friend or Enemy.  The functions of my job require that I be Teacher but I have largely unwilling Students.  The workplace culture I'm in operates on the Friend/Enemy axis.  Teacher becomes Enemy when Student just wants to be your Friend.  

So today is a great day.  It's going to be a really long day, but it's a great day.  October is one of my favorite months of the year (along with August and April), which makes this day wonderful as it is.  But that today I am really jumping, both feet, into Teacher Training is super-duper meaningful and exciting: this is the biggest single step I've taken this year to participate in the transformation of my work-life, to create a new platform for earning a living and stretching my own Yay and that of others.  

I am so deeply grateful to Laura Christensen in so many ways, for the retreat in Bali, for her on-going teaching and  for the shining example of Teacher-ness that she is, for love and friendship, and for helping me arrive at this threshold across which I now step with happy, happy heart.

Oh, what a great, auspicious day!